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Played For Both: Dale vs Pompey
Friday, 22nd Nov 2019 09:00 by AtThePeake

Few players have been able to get Dale fans on the edge of their seats in recent years like this week's Played For Both featured player, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing.

It was the second half of the 2-2 draw at Southend on Hallowe'en when I realised what a ridiculously talented footballer we had on our hands in the shape of Nathaniel Mendez-Laing.

Having replaced Jamie Allen at half-time with Dale trailing 2-0, the winger put in a stunning performance, consistently driving at the Shrimpers defence from the left side of the attack as he helped inspire a terrific comeback that saw us escape with a 2-2 draw.

Although it would be disingenuous to say that he never looked back from that performance, Mendez-Laing would go on to produce some stunning performances over the next two seasons at Dale, reviving a career that before his move to Spotland had been stuttering somewhat.

Having been born in Birmingham, Nathaniel Mendez-Laing came through the youth academy at Wolverhampton Wanderers, earning England caps at Under 16 and Under 17 level but making just one first-team appearance for the Black Country outfit, in a League Cup win over Swindon Town.

In 2010, he would join Peterborough United on a season-long loan and gain some valuable first-team experience, racking up 40 appearances (although just 12 starts) and scoring five times in all competitions as Posh won promotion to the Championship. A permanent transfer seemed likely, but after personal terms were not agree upon, the winger found himself back in the third tier on a six-month loan deal with Sheffield United.

Mendez-Laing struggled for form and fitness in South Yorkshire and made just 11 appearances with the Blades before returning to Wolverhampton and eventually completing a permanent transfer to Peterborough United in the summer of 2012.

Just a few months after signing however (and having made a solid start to his permanent Posh career) NML was placed on the transfer list following a public-order offence in Peterborough town centre and was told he had no future at the club.

An initial month-loan deal was signed at Portsmouth, which was extended after four strong performances including a man-of-the-match display on his debut against Doncaster Rovers, but a further five performances were all that he managed at Fratton Park and he headed back to Peterborough looking to rebuild his career.

His reputation off the field, and perhaps some fitness issues too, were always going to continue to be issues for Darren Ferguson as his manager but he did well to force his way back into the first-team, scoring a couple of goals in the remainder of the campaign which saw Posh relegation from the Championship.

Those fitness issues saw Mendez-Laing's game time limited in the following season but he did start to find his feet during a loan spell at Shrewsbury at the turn of the year. Having done enough in his six appearances at the New Meadow, NML forced his way back into the starting line-up at London Road once again, even scoring in a 4-2 win against his former loan club to condemn the Shrews to relegation in April.

The following season started brightly, but injury issues saw Mendez-Laing slip down the pecking order, before being sent out on loan to Cambridge United, where he featured 11 times and scored once, on his debut against another former loan outfit in Pompey and he was eventually released by Posh at the end of that campaign with his once bright career path now starting to look quite dimly lit.

Step forward Keith Hill. Known for his ability to fix a broken toy, Mendez-Laing with his off-field problems and fitness issues but undoubted natural talent must have seemed like manna from heaven for Hill.

Although it would take some time for NML to reach the fitness levels required by Hill, we were already seeing flashes of his brilliance in these early games. Strong, quick and direct, with incredible dribbling skill and an eye for goal, it wasn't long before Mendez-Laing started to become a very handy player to have. He scored his first goals for the club with a stunning hat-trick in an FA Cup win over Swindon in November in only his second start for the club, a week after that game-changing performance at Roots Hall.

As is often the case with talented young wide players, consistency was an issue for NML. Although when he played well, he was terrific and could win points on his own, there was never a certainty at this point that he was going to play well. When he did perform though, he was among Dale's best players, particularly in the derby victory over Bury in March, in which he scored a very well taken brace.

10 goals in 36 appearances in all competitions was enough for Dale to trigger a one-year extension clause on the winger's contract and it seemed that Hill's combination of tough love and freedom to express himself had started to get the best out of a player that had never really seemed to fit in at any of his previous clubs.

After a full pre-season to work on his fitness, Mendez-Laing came back into the fold looking sharp at the start of the 2016/2017 campaign and he enjoyed a particularly strong vein of form in October when he scored against Bury and Southend in back-to-back home victories.

With Dale looking like potential play-off candidates over the Christmas period, Mendez Laing's form prompted a rather wordy but catchy propagated largely by the admins of this very site on an FA Cup trip to Barrow to the tune of Scooter's 'Logical Song'. However, across January and February the side's form suffered and an eight-game winless streak in all competitions saw those dreams of a top six finish start to fade away.

There was certainly one man who didn't appear quite so quick to give up the ghost though, and perhaps sensing a few bigger and better clubs would be sniffing after him come the end of the season and knowing that some big performances would put him smack bang in the middle of the shop window, Mendez-Laing went on a run of form in the final few months of that campaign that I'm not sure I can compare it with any other Dale player in my time attending games.

Starting with his strike in the stunning 3-3 home draw with Sheffield United, NML was simply unstoppable in those final couple of months of his time at Dale, scoring five times in 14 appearances and winning man of the match award after man of the match award. They may as well have kept his name in the League One Team of the Week pages of the newspapers without even checking how he had played such was his brilliance in some of those games.

Playing like a man possessed at times, Mendez-Laing dragged us to some important victories and kept the play-off dream alive, linking up brilliantly with the likes of Matt Lund and Ian Henderson to produce excellent performances in wins over the likes of Chesterfield, Port Vale and Gillingham.

In the end, it wasn't to be for Mendez-Laing and Dale, as they fell short of the top six on the final day of the season, drawing at home to Bradford City, although a win wouldn't have been good enough anyway in the end. It was quite clear that this would be NML's final match in a Dale shirt - this streak of performances won't have gone unnoticed and he took the time to pose for selfies and sign autographs during the end of season lap of appreciation.

Unsurprisingly, plenty of clubs appeared to be showing an interest in one of the Football League's hottest players but in the end it was Cardiff City and Neil Warnock that were able to attract the winger - although few could have foreseen how that season would turn out for the Bluebirds.

Remarkably, Warnock added yet another promotion to his impressive CV, and Mendez-Laing was pivotal to the campaign, providing a spark of creativity and ingenuity in a side that was built largely on solid defensive foundations and frustrating opposing forwards. He played 38 times in the league, scoring six times to assist the promotion push and earn himself and the team a spot in the Premier League.

Unsurprisingly in the top tier, Mendez-Laing struggled for consistency against a stronger level of opponent, although he did make a total of 20 appearances including 11 starts as the Welsh side fought to try and remain in the top tier. In the end, it wasn't to be, although NML had his moments over the campaign - a terrific goal in an important win at Brighton & Hove Albion, a stunning strike in an away defeat at Arsenal and a brace on the final day of the season at Old Trafford.

Those two goals against Manchester United currently remain Mendez-Laing's last two strikes, as he is yet to open his account for the Bluebirds this season. Whilst Warnock has left the Cardiff City Stadium, NML remains having made 10 appearances so far in this campaign.

You can bet those two goals won't be his last for Cardiff, and for a player of such raw talent coupled with a frightening physicality, I wouldn't bet against them being his last Premier League goals either.

Although never consistent by any stretch, very few players have excited supporters in the same way that Nathaniel Mendez-Laing was capable of doing in his two years with the Dale. Whilst the club will remember him fondly, particularly for those final few months, he will no doubt remember the club in a similarly positive light as the place where a faltering career was resurrected and an ascent to the Premier League began.

Photo: Action Images

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